Meet the Keller family, five generations of firstborn women--an unbroken line of daughters--living together in the same house on a secluded olive grove in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California.
Anna, the family matriarch, is 112 and determined to become the oldest person in the world. An indomitable force, strong in mind and firm in body, she rules Hill House, the family home she shares with her daughter Bets, granddaughter Callie, great-granddaughter Deb, and great-great-granddaughter Erin. Though they lead ordinary lives, there is an element of the extraordinary to these women: the eldest two are defying longevity norms. Their unusual lifespans have caught the attention of a geneticist who believes they hold the key to breakthroughs that will revolutionize the aging process for everyone.
But Anna is not interested in unlocking secrets the Keller blood holds. She believes there are some truths that must stay hidden, including certain knowledge about her origins that she has carried for more than a century. Like Anna, each of the Keller women conceals her true self from the others. While they are bound by blood and the house they share, living together has not always been easy. And it is about to become more complicated now that Erin, the youngest, is back, alone and pregnant, after two years abroad with an opera company. Her return and the arrival of the geneticist who has come to study the Keller family ignites explosive emotions that these women have kept buried and uncovers revelations that will shake them all to their roots.
Told from varying viewpoints, Courtney Miller Santos compelling and evocative debut novel captures the joys and sorrows of family--the love, secrets, disappointments, jealousies, and forgiveness that tie generations to one another.
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August 06, 2012
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Excerpt from The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo
Anna Davison Keller wanted to be the oldest person in the world. She felt she was owed this distinction, due to the particular care she'd taken with the vessel God had given her. In her morning prayers, she made a show, in case God himself was watching, of getting out of bed and onto her knees. She spoke to God in his language--asking for a length of days to be added to the one hundred and twelve years she'd already lived and pleading for health in her navel and marrow in her bones. She didn't say outright that God ought to strike dead that jo-fired man in China who was keeping her from the title, but after all these years, surely, God knew her heart.
In 2006, summer overstayed its welcome--giving the entire Sacramento Valley the look of wildflowers sat too long in a vase. Dawn was still an hour away, and although it was early November, the air that morning was warm and stale. Anna dressed in the dark, while her terrier, Bobo, nipped at her heels--urging her to the door. Rising before the sun gave her privacy enough to be pleasant with
her daughter and granddaughter, who shared the tidy house with Anna. People often mistook them for sisters. Rubbish, Anna always thought, but that was the young for you--to anyone under thirty everyone over sixty looked the same age.
She didn't want the toast and marmalade on her plate--making it was part of her routine, but she was realizing that too many min- utes of her days were taken up by unexamined habits. She forced a bite, tossed the remainder to Bobo, and stepped onto the back porch. For the past several days, she'd been preoccupied with the impending arrival of a doctor, a geneticist, who was coming to study Anna and her progeny. As it had been explained to her, the man hoped to unlock the keys to longevity that hid in the genes of certain people--superagers, they were called. Anna thought of it as a holy grail search, although she sensed saying this aloud would be tom- foolery on her part.
Thank God he was finally arriving today, the anticipation had kept her from giving full attention to normally reflexive activities, like sleeping. Last night she'd been plagued by dreams filled with half-formed images of umbilical cords and the face of a woman she didn't recognize. Then, there was her appetite. Each time she tried to eat, her stomach seemed to be full of its own acids. Anna needed a distraction, and today, with the harvest finally over, the olives would be waiting for her.
In the dark, the long slope of lawn was gray and heavy with dew. She stayed at the porch railing and watched Bobo run down the steps and across the lawn to where the grass ended and the fam- ily's orchard began. There was not enough light to see the olive trees, but Anna could hear the leaves rustle as the Northers blew through the valley. She pursed her lips. A muttering, anxious voice inside her clawed its way to the surface: There's fruit to glean. Olives plumped up so tight that the skin'll split at the slightest touch. Dozens of drupes drop-
ping to the ground with each sway of a bough. They're out there rotting, an ample feast for pests.
She felt this guilt after every harvest. The pickers were only ever able to collect nine-tenths of what the grove had to offer. Anna had never been able to abide waste. She blamed her frugality on her parents and their heritage. What was it people said? Shown the Eiffel Tower any good Scot-Irish would ask what fool wasted good steel. Anna pulled on the muddy galoshes they kept on the porch and emptied the basket where they kept kindling. God knew; if she didn't glean, no one else would. It was futile, but she felt certain that one year she would succeed in stripping a tree of all its fruit.
Bobo met her as she descended the hill. She bent down to rub his ears before he trotted back to the house. She was surprised to find when she raised her eyes that her mind was not on that November morning, but on a memory more than a century old. For Anna, time had a way of folding up on itself. There were certain seasons when she felt the reminiscences about her father and mother, both dead since the early 1930s, as freshly as if it were the day they'd formed. She knew that every second she'd breathed had been recorded by her brain and that occasionally, her mind surprised her by recalling a moment she'd not remembered before.
The smell of wet flannel tickled her nose, and she heard the echo of giggling. It was an old memory, she couldn't have been more than ten. She and her brother, Wealthy, were gathering fallen olives from the squares of gray wool laid on dewy ground. The perfect olives were put on one, the split and shriveled fruit on another. They were duti- ful children for a spell, but before long, they were sitting cross-legged, playing slapsies. She was much slower than her older brother, and the backs of her hands were red from being hit so many times. Her hands hovered just above Wealthy's. She watched his eyes closely for the first sign of movement. She ached to win, to get a chance to slap her broth-
er's hands. Neither of them noticed their father, standing half-hidden behind an olive tree, with a deep frown across his face.
He was a thin man. Anna imagined that if her father's skin were to be peeled back, like whittled bark, there would be green wood un- derneath. His blows always felt like those from a switch. There was rebound in his strikes. He boxed Wealthy's ears with open palms and roared at them both about the wasted time. Anna, seeing her opportunity, slapped the tops of her brother's hands and ran off. She remembered turning to look at her father and brother, their mouths open, their expressions changing from anger to laughter, and then she tripped.
It was a small cut, one that healed without leaving a scar. But it bled like an artery had opened up. "Scalp wounds are always bad," her father said, peering at the small cut above her left eyebrow. He dabbed at it with his handkerchief and then sent Wealthy to col- lect all the spiderwebs he could find. When he returned, his fist was clamped tight around sticky threads pressed into a gray oblong. To- gether they picked off pieces of the ball and pushed them into the cut until the bleeding slowed to a trickle.
Anna stopped near the end of the lawn and cursed. The early dawn light didn't provide enough illumination to go into the grove, which absorbed and diffused the sun's rays so that even at noon- day the inside of the orchard was dim. She should have remembered about the light. Hell. She hated to be made to feel foolish, especially by her own actions. This lapse made her wary and with her fingers, she reached up and felt along her eyebrow. She pushed the wrinkles aside and ran her finger along the few brow hairs she had left. Noth- ing. No slight bump, or irregularity in the skin to authenticate her memory, and yet she knew it was true.
The sky turned from purple to blue. She treaded along the edge of the grove, where there was just enough light, and picked fruit, reaching for the limbs on the outer edge of the orchard and feeling
for the drupes by touch. A lifetime of this touching meant that she knew--by the shape, the heft of each fruit, if it would be good for pressing. That word, drupe, had confused her for many years. Her mother would tell her the pansies in the window boxes were droop- ing and needed to be watered, and Anna would run to the window, wondering what wonderful fruit the yellow and purple flowers would produce.
That was a story she'd told before, but the miracle of spider- webs was a newly remembered tale, one that she needed to tell her daughter, her granddaughter, and anyone else who would listen. All that the generations beneath her did not know worried Anna. She wanted to find someone who would listen to her. Really listen. The world hated old people. Even her own family thought they'd learned all they needed to know from Anna. She was no longer consulted, and she couldn't start a story without her daughter, or granddaugh- ter, interrupting to finish it for her. They had no perspective, no un- derstanding of how much still needed to be preserved. It would take a lifetime to tell them her secrets, and Anna had already lived two lifetimes.
The light touched the edges of the valley and Anna moved to step into the grove.
"Mama," her daughter called.
"Grams," echoed her granddaughter with her high, thin voice. Then their voices took on the sharper edge of need and worry. Anna sighed and turned back toward the house. It was good
to be wanted. The dew evaporated off the leaves of the olive trees like smoke. Walking out up the hill, she gave quiet thanks that the firstborns had all stayed near--tied to the olives, the reddish soil, the adobe home, and Anna.
"You're here!" said Elizabeth, no--Bets: no one called her daugh- ter by her full name any longer. Out of nervousness, Bets played with the chain of her necklace.
"How can you just wander off in the dark like that?" asked Cal- liope.
"Dog was with me for a bit," she said. It always disconcerted Anna to see her daughter and granddaughter with so much age on them.
"I still worry," Bets said. Her daughter was a solid woman, darker than the rest of the family, except for Anna. She had heavy brows and deep-set eyes. In the next year, she'd turn ninety, but she had the Keller genes, which meant she hadn't been slowed down by age. Her hair had gone gray about ten years earlier, but then in the last few years it had lightened, so that in the morning light it shim- mered like silver.
"That makes two of us," Callie said through the screen door. Anna pulled off the muddy boots and sat in one of the rockers
on the back porch. Callie should let her hair go gray, she thought. This month, her granddaughter's hair was a brassy blond and frizzed at the ends. She'd also refused to give in to the shapeless shelf that all women's bustlines moved toward in old age. Even though Callie was in her midsixties, and it was no longer fashionable, she strapped herself into corsets and brassieres that molded her soft bosoms into sharp points. Her walk, though, was the only aspect of her appear- ance that Anna argued with her about. The accident had left Callie with a noticeable limp, which she'd turned into a provocative tilt. Callie claimed she walked as she'd always walked, but Anna thought the come-hither movements appeared only after her granddaughter's leg had been all torn to pieces.
"Grams? Are you listening to me?" Callie said through the screen door. "What do you think?"
"About what," Anna asked.
Bets opened the door a crack. "About feeding the doctor when he arrives."
"Tell Grams to set those boots on the grass and I'll clean the mud
off later," Callie said, and then she started listing off the contents of their refrigerator and wondering aloud if there was enough time to defrost a roast.
"It's only lunch," Anna said. The geneticist had been Callie's grand idea. Her granddaughter mythologized the family; she wanted to be set apart from the world around her, even from the time she was small, she'd spent all her energy on being unique. Anna blamed the girl's father for that. He'd been the one to insist on such a fanciful name. "Calliope," she said thinking it was a fine word, but a terrible name. She usually shortened it to avoid saying it.
"Are you okay, Grams?" Callie asked through the screen door. Anna assured her granddaughter she was fine and asked for a
cup of hot water with a drop of olive oil and a wedge of lemon. Then she settled into one of the rockers and sorted through the olives, throwing the few bad ones to the fat robins who were digging for worms in the yard.
"Is this your secret?" Callie said, handing over the cup and then sitting in the other rocker. Because of her leg, she could never stand for long. "Shall we tell Amrit there's no need for a blood analysis, the secret to longevity is citric acid, olive oil, and H2O?"
"Amrit? I thought it was pronounced Hashmi. Dr. Hashmi,"
Anna said. New people never quite understood that she had all her faculties. She knew that her age and the way her face resembled crumpled linen made them assume she didn't understand what was happening around her. She'd been practicing the geneticist's name for weeks now, even reading up on his research, so that it would be clear when they met that she was old, but not infirm.
Callie blushed. "No, no. You're right, we should call him Dr. Hashmi. I've just been talking to him so often that I feel like we're friends."
"Talking about what?" Anna asked.
"About us, about you. All of it." Calliope looked away from Anna
toward the orchard. She took a small white pill from her pocket and swallowed it. "It's not just your age that he's interested in. He's fasci- nated by the generations, the firstborns. I guess in India, daughters are considered a liability."
Unable to help herself, Anna answered with the Irish proverb she heard from her own mother's lips more times than she could count. "A son is a son till he takes him a wife, a daughter is a daughter all of her life."
Anna's sons had all died. The last one five years earlier, but the line of daughters remained unbroken--five generations of firstborn women. She rocked and whispered her own private litany--Anna begat Elizabeth, Bets begat Calliope, Callie begat Deborah, and Deb begat Erin.
"There's always a place for sons," Bets said, coming out on the porch. Anna knew her daughter was proud of her own boys, even though they'd all left California and settled into towns where their wives had grown up.
"Callie was telling me that wherever this doctor comes from that daughters are a burden," Anna said.
"Everyone always wants sons. But it isn't like it used to be. They're the ones who leave now, got to get off in the world and explore," Bets said. "I haven't seen my boys in two or three Christmases now, al- though Matthew tried to fly me to Boston last year."
"It's different in India," Callie said. "You have to pay money if you have daughters, for them to get married."
It occurred to Anna that perhaps Callie had a romantic inter- est in the geneticist. Anna, despite being widowed for decades, had never wanted another man in her life. Her granddaughter, however, was a fool for love.
"Think of all the money I could've had. Five able-bodied sons might've brought in enough money to leave Kidron and move back to Australia," Anna said.
"They might have been able-bodied, but they certainly weren't able-brained," Bets said. She had never been able to resist a dig at her brothers, even if they were dead.
"I think it's romantic," Callie said.
Anna took a good look at her granddaughter. She'd put on her Sunday makeup, even though it was a Saturday, and she was wear- ing hundred-dollar jeans the saleswoman in Nordstrom had insisted made her look merely fifty, instead of the sixty-five she actually was. Anna thought dungarees were ridiculous no matter who was wear- ing them. She smoothed the fabric of her own skirt and pulled a stray string from the seam.
"This is science, not romance," Anna said. She wanted to warn Callie, to keep her from getting her hopes up. This had happened before. One of the suppliers for her store would strike up a relationship with Callie on the phone and she would think she'd found true love.
"She knows," Bets said. Her daughter didn't like disagreements. Anna wasn't surprised when she changed the subject. "How long until the good doctor gets here?"
"Before lunchtime," Callie said. She pulled on the neckline of her shirt until it fully covered her bosom.
"Help me with these olives then," Anna said. "If we get them in the press now we'll have fresh oil for lunch."
"The pickers did a good job this year. The Lindseys said their crew pulled down a ton an acre and we got at least that," Bets said.
Anna didn't agree. "There's a lot of picking left to do."
Bets sighed and took the bait. "Didn't they strip it clean enough for you? I know Benny hired that new foreman, but he's Diego's son, and you know he'd been out with his daddy in the Lindseys' fields since he could walk."
Anna looked at the funnel that fed the small handpress they kept on the porch. She needed another basket of olives to fill it. "Pickers didn't do any worse than any other year. Definitely no better than the
year all our men were at war and the harvest was left to the women and children."
"Daddy always said women made the best pickers. What's that old proverb?" Bets asked.
Anna grinned as she spoke. " 'In the olive grove you've got to be wise in the feet and wild in the head.' " She smiled thinking about her own father and how he'd always claimed that women were the only souls wild enough in the head to pick a tree clean. He never meant it as a compliment, but Anna took it as such.
Callie shook her head. "I never did understand that. I think you ought to let the pickers use those machines. We could probably get a ton and a quarter an acre." With this statement, her granddaughter had started an old argument, and Anna understood Callie raised it mostly for the conversation.
"The noise would kill me and the pounding is likely to kill the trees." Anna smiled as she said this. She knew her granddaughter was just finding a way to argue, since Bets had cut off their conversa- tion about the doctor. This was better. Callie liked to tell people that the day her grandmother wasn't outraged, they'd start planning the funeral. It made folks laugh, especially young people, who couldn't imagine that Anna, as old as she was, hadn't already planned her interment twice over.
They stood on the porch, hashing out old complaints until the dry November wind drove them inside. Just as Anna moved to pick up the basket and head to the orchard for a second time, she heard the crunch of a car coming down the gravel drive out front.
"He's early," Callie said, rising and moving with her awkward gait quickly through the house to the front door. The dog, who was too old to hear the car, trotted after Callie as she thumped past him.
Bets held the door open for Anna and then glanced at the ormolu clock on the piano in the corner of the front room. "I don't see how
he made such good time from the airport. Oakland traffic is never easy to get through."
There was no porch off the front door. Three concrete stairs stepped down to the gravel driveway, a carved semicircle in the front yard. Anna remained standing on the top step, shading her eyes against the sun as a dark blue sedan made its way down the drive.
"Why doesn't he hurry up already?" Callie asked.
"Probably didn't get the rental insurance," Bets said. "They'll get you for the tiniest ding."
Anna squinted and saw that there was a woman behind the wheel. Bobo surprised them all by rising up on his hind legs and pawing at the sky before turning a flip. It was a trick he hadn't done in years. Anna was just realizing it was not who they expected when the car stopped and Erin, her great-great-granddaughter, stepped out of the car.